The Illustrious Man

[July 2012] In his introduction to Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury, edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle, Ray Bradbury discusses Edgar Allan Poe as his literary father. He remembers receiving a copy of Tales of Mystery and Imagination and how influential those stories were to him as a boy.

Thanks to the unusual way the past keeps filling up, I regard both Poe and Bradbury as my literary fathers. I have a clear recollection of buying Tales of Mystery and Imagination in a bargain bin in a department store while on vacation in Maine. On that day, I also bought Kipling’s Jungle Book and Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. I know I read the latter two books, but I read and reread the Poe until the poorly glued cover separated from the pages and the pages themselves came apart. I go back to Poe again and again, each time amazed at the economy and impact of those very brief tales.

I don’t have a similar recollection of when Bradbury entered my life but in retrospect it seems like he’s always been there. Unlike Poe, whose contribution remained static, Bradbury continued to produce new material over the first half century of my life. Yes, I know all the classic stories. Montag and his books, Doug Spaulding discovering over the course of one memorable summer that he is alive and then, later, that he must inevitably die, the one about the man who grew mushrooms in his basement, and the one about the sea creature who fell in love with a foghorn, and the one that gave rise to the term “the butterfly effect,” and the one about the creepy African wallpaper, and the one about the boy who realizes he has a skeleton inside his body, and the one about the Martian who is forced to adopt different forms extracted from the minds of those he comes into contact with, and the one about the place where it rains all the time, and the one about the day the carnival came to town, and the one about the young couple brought together by a mutual love for Laurel and Hardy and a set of stairs and a piano, and the one about… Well, I could go on all day.

However, I kept up with Bradbury over the years. I was a big fan of his trilogy of mystery novels (Death is a Lonely BusinessA Graveyard for LunaticsLet’s All Kill Constance). I have a fond place in my heart for Green Shadows, White Whale, a fictionalized account of the year he spent in Ireland with John Huston while working on the script for Moby Dick. On the one and only occasion I had the good fortune to meet Bradbury—he came to Houston in the mid-90s on a sort of a lecture tour—I brought a copy of Fahrenheit 451 to be signed, but it was Green Shadows, White Whale that I mentioned to him and he seemed pleased. It contains one of my favorite of his stories (“The Banshee,” adapted for The Ray Bradbury Theater with Peter O’Toole), and it has a more grown-up version of the youthful exuberance and glee of discovery that infuses Dandelion Wine. And who couldn’t be enchanted by the creepy, weird and oh-so-human family in From the Dust Returned?

The funny thing is that people don’t (perhaps shouldn’t) end up writing like the writers who are most influential on them. I don’t know anyone who writes like Ray Bradbury. Some have tried, but no one has been able to pull it off successfully. Imitators are too earnest. They don’t have the joie de vivre that infused everything Bradbury wrote, the spirit that allowed him to pull off some audaciously flowery prose. I recently read Dandelion Wine to my wife and it’s a deucedly difficult book to read aloud because the sentences are long and…unexpected. At first you don’t know what to make of them. They seem to shift direction halfway through. Once they’re out of your mouth, you have to look back, often with astonishment, to consider what you’ve just uttered. Fifty-plus years after it was published, though, the book still seems full of profound, mature and fresh observations. The young boys who see elders as time machines. The family who is devastated by the happiness machine because at some point you have to turn it off and go back to real life. The sense that a person could reach an age where she’s ready to just lie down and go to sleep forever, confident that parts of her will continue to exist in everyone she ever touched.

I only ever wrote one short story that I would say is inspired by or homage to Bradbury. It’s called “The View from the Top” (recently reprinted in Rage Against the Night). It takes place in a carnival and the main character is trying to experience absolutely everything the fairgrounds have to offer. It’s a pale imitation of the master, if imitation it can be called, but the story has always pleased me. In a sense it was a way of getting the Bradbury out of my writing. There, I can say. I’ve done that. Now I can move on.

Bradbury did the same thing with Poe, penning “Usher II” in the 1940s. At some point we have to go through the throes of adolescence and pull away from our literary progenitors. We don’t sever all ties, but we become our own people. We have our own stories to tell. Green Town, Illinois meant something to Ray Douglas Bradbury (son of Leonard Spaulding Bradbury—extract those two middle names, why don’t you?), but we need to stake our own claims and plagiarize our own pasts. Otherwise we’ll be nothing more than mere wisps of transparent ghosts, forever pursued by the lonely one in the ominous ravine in the midst of town or trapped in an endless carnival of someone else’s making.

Ray and me, circa 1995. Photo credit: Mary Anne Vincent

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